As science and technology advance, it seems there is an increase in divided public opinion on whether to trust new technologies and data. For example, early polls showed over 70 percent of people would likely get a COVID-19 vaccine, while around 14 percent were objectors and the remainder were somewhere in the middle. Why might this be?
Hesitancy toward vaccines is not a new concept: After the passage of the small-pox vaccination mandate in 1853, there were violent riots and the Anti-Vaccination League was founded in London. Despite this hesitation, and thanks to the vaccine program, smallpox was classed as eradicated in 1980.
To question data is a normal and healthy response to new information, and it is what scientists do every day to ensure that all research has undergone rigorous testing. Science is one of the most prominent fields known to problem solve and generate knowledge.
But how do scientists go from forming their hypothesis (or question) to shouting “eureka!” in the middle of a laboratory?
Although the scientific question can vary significantly depending on the field, the scientific process typically follows the same pattern. It begins by identifying the problem/question itself. For example: “Can we reduce meat consumption by eating insect-based food?”
Then, researchers gather all the literature that other scientists have published. In this example, they might ask: “Are any insects yummy to eat? Are they available to buy? Are they toxic to humans?” This information will help determine if the question is worth investing time into.
If it is, then the scientists construct a hypothesis. Such as: “Crickets would taste good in a taco because they have a nutty taste and would soak up the spices.” The hypothesis is then tested, in this case, perhaps by making different dishes and trying them out on volunteers. The yeas and nays are then counted, and conclusions are drawn up. The results can then be communicated to the rest of the population.
Often in scientific and pharmaceutical research, the experimental part can take months or even years to complete. For new drugs, the process is rigorous, and not many make it through to licensing. Computerized models, animals, and cells are used to ensure the drugs are safe for humans. Before clinical trials, the application is peer-reviewed by experts in the field to determine whether the preliminary research is sufficient to allow testing in humans.
Clinical trials have three phases. The first involves a small group of healthy volunteers, who receive a small dose of the compound being tested. If this passes the safety test, then it will move to phase 2 trials. Phase 2 examines the efficacy of a compound in a patient with the condition that the drug is intended for. These studies try to use the smallest amount of people that will still give statistical evidence on the efficacy. If the drug passes this trial, it advances to phase 3. This is a larger study that often takes place across multiple international sites. It helps to reconfirm phase 2 findings and identify the best dosage.
All too often, the hypothesis, experiment, or drug does not have the expected outcome. But this is actually a good thing, as a rejection of the hypothesis can increase our understanding of the world around us.
It is so important that the Journal of Trial and Error – an independent open-access journal – was set up. The journal allows scientists to discover what others have already done and build upon it, rather than have it locked away in a dusty lab notebook.
The very foundation of science relies on data transparency, as it provides confidence that the data reported is accurate and coming from an official source.
There are many examples in history where scientists have evaluated the data and found fantastic new uses for technology and drugs, which has led to unexpected scientific outcomes and marvelous breakthroughs. Such as:
Anesthesia: Humphry Davy was an English Chemist who threw quite the party in 1799. Instead of the more normal offering of a welcome drink, he offered his guests to breathe in nitrous oxide (or laughing gas) from a green silk bag.
In a very primitive scientific approach, he wrote the party-goers recollections in a book of research that was published in 1800. One recollection from an unnamed source reads: “I felt like the sound of a harp.” As such, “laughing gas parties” or “ether frolics” became all the rage.
But while people were getting merry, a party-goer dentist witnessed a person getting injured and showing no sign of pain as they were on a low dose of laughing gas. The dentist (Horace Wells) wondered about the use of the gas for medical purposes. This thought got the ball rolling and, eventually, Davy’s parties helped bring anesthesia into the surgery rooms, which is still around to this day. Who said science wasn’t sometimes a laugh?
Penicillin: Dr Alexander Flemming went on holiday in 1928, and when he came back he noticed a colony of mold growing on a petri dish that he had forgotten to put away. Originally, this petri dish had Staphylococcus bacteria (bacteria that causes abscesses, sore throats, and boils) on it. He noticed with his keen scientific eye, that around the mold, the dish was completely clear of bacteria.
When analyzed further, the mold seemed to produce a self-defense chemical, which he named penicillin. During World War Two, researchers discovered how to isolate the active compound, and so began the antibiotic era. Maybe this is a good excuse not to do some chores every now and again.
Cancer Therapy: In World War I, mustard gas was used as a horrific chemical warfare agent. By World War II, medical researchers were studying chemicals related to mustard gas. Scientists discovered and studied a compound called nitrogen mustard (Mechlorethamine). This compound was found to work as a treatment for Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a palliative chemotherapy for breast and lung cancers, and a lotion for skin lesions of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
The little blue pill: Also known as sildenafil, the little blue pill was originally developed to treat high blood pressure and chest pain due to heart disease (angina pectoris). During clinical trials, scientists realized that the men taking the drug were developing a potentially embarrassing problem… penile erections.
When sexually aroused, the drug helps to improve blood flow into the penis. In fact, it was found to be a lot more effective at treating erectile dysfunction than it ever was for angina. After it passed all the trials, it was remarketed as a drug to help erection problems and now helps many couples in the bedroom.
Stop smoking products: 1989 saw many great things, like the release of Nintendo’s game boy, the birth of Taylor Swift … and the approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the antidepressant Bupropion. Although it was originally used as an antidepressant, it was discovered to be a useful aid for people to stop smoking.
Smoking causes the release of chemicals that activate receptors for pleasure (dopamine), which in turn can lead to addictive behaviors. When trying to give up smoking, nicotine withdrawal symptoms are caused by a decrease in dopamine. Bupropion can prevent these withdrawal symptoms by increasing dopamine levels in the brain.
The implantable pacemaker: The prolific inventor Wilson Greatbatch had over 150 patents to his name. But he will always be best known as the inventor of the implantable pacemaker. However, this life-saving invention was born from an error.
While working on a heart-rhythm recorder, he added the wrong electronic component, one that sent out electrical pulses instead of recording them. But this mistake meant he had found a way to electrically stimulate a heartbeat. He then miniaturized and packaged the device, which was implanted into its first human patient in 1960.
Hair growth drugs: From celebrities to people with more humble occupations, hair growth drugs have been a game-changer in boosting self-confidence, and turning balding heads into luscious locks. There are a couple of hair growth drugs currently on the market that did not originally have this wonderful application – one being finasteride.
Originally, finasteride was used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged, but not cancerous, prostate gland). One side effect is the ability to slow or stop hair loss and encourage hair regrowth, so it was reanalyzed, retested, and then repackaged for the balding population.
Overall, it is very important to question everything: It is the way that science has advanced over the years. Scientific breakthroughs often come from researchers analyzing their results and thinking critically about the best application based on the data available.
We hope to see many more exciting advances in the future.
A summarized infographic version of this article is available here!
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